Wisconsin Democrats vie for edge in crowded Senate race

FILE - Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 8, 2022. Democrats are fighting for a way to break out to be the one to take on Johnson in a race expected to be one of the most expensive and tightest in the country. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File) (Andrew Harnik, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

MADISON, Wis. – Democrats in the crowded primary race for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin are trying to distinguish themselves through traditional campaign tactics, like million-dollar television ad buys and policy papers, but also in more unusual ways like selling non-fungible tokens, playing rock songs and releasing folksy online videos.

With the Aug. 9 primary still nearly five months away, and polls showing roughly half of voters still haven't made up their mind, the candidates are fighting for a way to break out to be the one to take on Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in November.

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The race in battleground Wisconsin, a state won by President Joe Biden by less than 21,000 votes, is widely expected to be one of the most expensive and hardest fought in the country with majority control of the Senate on the line.

On Monday, state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski took the traditional route with the launch of her first television ad of the race, taking a swipe at Johnson for his comments about taking mouthwash to fight COVID-19 and his vote against a $1.2 billion infrastructure bill.

In addition to Godlewski, other Democrats running include Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Milwaukee Bucks executive-on-leave Alex Lasry, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson and Millennial Action Project founder Steven Olikara.

Barnes has consistently led in early polls, but a Marquette University Law School poll earlier this month found that nearly half of respondents didn’t know who they would vote for in the Democratic primary.

Barnes has been racking up endorsements, including U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, of New Jersey, and Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, and national groups are coming to Wisconsin to campaign for him. Barnes, who is trying to become the first Black senator from Wisconsin, has also issued policy proposals on voting rights and other pro-democracy measures.

Lasry, who was instrumental in getting Milwaukee chosen for the 2020 Democratic National Convention that largely got scuttled due to the pandemic, has broadened his name recognition and bolstered his standing in polls by spending more than $3 million on television ads.

Lasry is touting his work helping secure a new stadium for the Bucks in Milwaukee and advocating for high-paying union jobs.

Other lesser known candidates with not as much money are trying to grab attention in other ways.

Nelson, a former state lawmaker and self-described underdog, last week released his “Full Nelson” job-creation plan at a unionized Madison food co-operative, which came after he traveled to all 72 counties as part of his “Full Nelson” tour.

Nelson has also tried to break through by writing a book about saving an Appleton paper mill slated for closure and releasing a series of folksy online videos that emphasize his underdog status, lack of personal wealth and sometimes feature his children.

Olikara, the youngest candidate who turns 32 this month, sings and plays guitar while campaigning, recently breaking out a folksy version of the Nirvana hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Last week, Olikara announced he would be selling non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, to draw attention to issues surrounding new technology.

The 30 NFTs he is selling, which start at $50, are available through the merchandise store on his campaign website. Each of the NFTs offered are of five images each featuring Olikara's face.

Non-fungible tokens use a version of the encryption technology employed to secure cryptocurrencies to create one-of-a-kind digital objects. The technology provides digital creations a kind of certificate of authenticity, allowing ownership of something that could otherwise be replicated endlessly.

Johnson, who announced in January that he would seek a third term after earlier promising not to, officially started his campaign much later than many of his Democratic challengers. He launched a pair of ads last week highlighting his work for the Joseph Project, a faith-based initiative in Milwaukee designed to connect people with jobs.

His ads are running statewide on cable and broadcast networks.

Godlewski’s spot was also slotted to run on broadcast and cable TV in the state’s major markets as part of a seven-figure ad buy.

In Godlewski’s ad, she faults Johnson for not doing enough to combat disappearing dairy farms, rising prices and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“And what’s Ron Johnson done?” Godlewski says in the ad. “Voted against new jobs and told us to take mouthwash to cure COVID.”

Johnson said in December that mouthwash was one way to protect against COVID-19, a claim that medical experts and the manufacturer of Listerine said was not proven.

As Democrats angle for an advantage, the field is slowly starting to narrow. Last month, radiologist Gillian Battino who was making her first run for office dropped out of the race and decided to run for treasurer instead.